Eyes wide fucked

Damselfrau
In this essay, art critic Tommy Olsson reflects on the exhibition 'Damselfrau', on display in the National Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in Trondheim, September to November 2019

«There is something about the way these objects are made – they give the impression of being produced in a moment of utter liberation and joy, over and above the state of ecstasy and intoxication»

Tommy Olsson
Damselfrau

Captivating is the first and final word that comes to mind. The landscape of elaborate masks that fill the exhibition room at Nordenfjeldske (the National Museum of Decorative Arts and Design in Trondheim) has instant appeal – colours and materials that seem to have found each other in a fit of intoxicated ecstasy in objects that have no aspiration other than to be more intense versions of the same. They are not so much attractive as downright seductive. The eye becomes an erogenous zone, the gaze a tool for serving obsession. But these are masks, and that makes it difficult not to think of carnival, rituals, masquerades and partner swapping clubs, but at the same time there is such an emphasis on craft that it is tempting to think the effect would be the same even without the mask aspect. It’s impossible to know. It’s more like a thought experiment I tease myself with, because that’s the kind of thing you do when you know too much; you seek explanations for your responses in places where explanations won’t be found. Because some things just work better when you don’t know how they work, and I’m happy to admit that what interests me most is the fact that something works.

This is perhaps especially true when that something has no agenda beyond what can be seen. When discussing the relationship between contemporary art and crafts, we are inclined to highlight the points of overlap, and bodies of work that represent a shift from one to the other. But the question is whether this stuff here isn’t just as interesting. If these objects had been shown in the art museum round the corner, they would seem annoyingly one-dimensional, but it’s as if the decision to show them in the museum of applied art – a natural choice, by the way – is in itself enough to encourage more than the obvious interpretations. While there’s little danger of them being classified as contemporary art, still they make use of some of the same strategies, including ambiguity. Which, again, has nothing to do with the fact that they are masks – but since that’s what they are, one central dimension here is a game with identity. Some of these masks are suggestive of niqabs and the principle of concealing oneself. Others take us in the direction of the peacock, reinforcing what is already there. In the first instance, one tends to think of a mask as something you use to prevent others from recognising you, but some of these veils of thin and loosely hanging threads, in motley colours that invariably end up shimmering gold, serve rather to attract maximum attention and to hide very little. They can be seen as direct descendants of and contemporary upgrades of the mask whose primary purpose is adornment. Something you wear to a party. And the artist’s alias Damselfrau emphatically pushes the point home that her creations should be viewed as feminine accoutrements, or fashion accessories – which explains why I find myself enthralled from the word go. This is fundamentally feminine stuff that doesn’t question the category or show any interest in discussion – the aim is to emphasise that premise to the utmost degree. Which does not mean there is no friction here, because in using exaggeration this work also implicitly criticises the tyranny of getting dolled up. Nothing can be taken for granted even if it's pretty to the point that it hurts, or vice versa.

«I am probably not the only one to be knocked sideways on first encounter»

Tommy Olsson
Damselfrau
Damselfrau

It could easily be missed, but in a display case by the main door, a few of these things are neatly bundled together, and it’s this that makes me wonder whether the most important thing here isn’t something other than the masks themselves, and whether or not the effect would be the same if the focus was not essentially on the face. I’m not sure that I believe in this exercise, but there might be something to it. Although everything in this display case conveys the same distillation of desire and, in a broader sense, solicitude, it still comes across as almost entirely abstract – something you can’t quite put your finger on. Of course, I could ask whether these objects have this power because I know what it is I am prevented from seeing, or because of some quality they possess in and of themselves (and I am more inclined to think the latter, because they would probably be even more powerful if the key to the mystery were something readily accessible). Because there is also something about the way these objects are made – they give the impression of being produced in a moment of utter liberation and joy, over and above the aforementioned state of ecstasy and intoxication; conditions that mean something, because they often lead one to see the world in a very different way. They are quite evidently the outcome of a substantial investment of time and love. In many cases the result hangs almost weightless above the floor in a presentation that assumes a certain average eye level (which happens to be a bit low for an adult art critic who rarely looks up at the person he’s speaking to unless administering oral sex), and where the threads can be so thin as to verge on the invisible.

It is also a paradox that such seemingly ethereal – and condensed – objects are more readily classified as applied art than as contemporary art. Certainly, they are designed to be used, even if unlikely to be suitable for every occasion. This does not prevent them from having a place in several of the discussions they essentially seek to avoid and do not allude to in any obvious way. The mere fact that they are masks should be substance enough to keep you busy for weeks if you happen to be required to say something about the selfie generation and the – to my mind self-evident – connection between the Hi-8 camera and Instagram. But only if – not that I was thinking of doing any such thing here. Because what interests me is something deeper, which has to do with the movement of fingers under the control of impulses from the brain and whatever else it is that explains why I am probably not the only one to be knocked sideways on first encounter. So many details, so many things sewn in place, and so little of it that seems arbitrary. Thanks not only to their sheer craftsmanship – which these objects quite obviously represent – but also to their clear purpose and far-reaching references, I stumble out into town smiling the smile you would otherwise find on people who have just found Jesus or are unfortunate enough to have fallen in love. I mean, what the hell are people supposed to think? It’s downright hard to step out into the street when everyone gets the impression you’ve just turned Christian – even when that isn’t exactly what has happened.

«So many details, so many things sewn in place, and so little of it that seems arbitrary»

Tommy Olsson
Damselfrau
Damselfrau

No, if anything it’s the eyes which, in their overstimulated joy, attribute something of their own state to the rest of the world – like an array of gold-coloured threads arranged criss-cross in order as best as possible to capture that world. The same simple principle: you can’t go far wrong if you make something pretty, and the prettiest thing of all is something you attempt to hide and in doing so end up drawing so much attention to it that you can no longer leave it anonymous.

Captivating, really. The first and final word that works best both as introduction and summary: captivating.